We’re living through years of highly significant anniversaries in Northern Ireland at the moment. The 50th anniversary of foundation of the Civil Rights movement, the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and soon the 100th Anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland itself as a state and the coming anniversaries of those who’ve lost their lives as a result of living in Northern Ireland.
Naturally at times like these we will often look to the past to judge where we stand today. More importantly we should look upon what lessons we can learn and where we should be looking for the future.
Despite whatever intentions there may have been at the time, we have not had an easy existence since that squiggly line was drawn and Northern Ireland came to be. Through the turmoil around the very existence of this place, we have lost thousands to sectarian violence and hundreds more to the wider effects of instability.
After attending a few events where the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights movement is discussed, a recurring dispute that occurs is often about what the movement’s intentions were, whether their demands were justified and how they were perceived because of the distrust towards them because of these doubts. This is echoed everywhere else in how we discuss our past and is, more often than not, presented and divided through the orange vs green binary with the end result basically being “our history is subjective and you have to respect that”.
One simple reality I think we can all (I hope) accept is that after all of the turmoil and violence and protests and rallies and movements and campaigns; we’re still here.
If the border were to vanish tomorrow (we won’t bother going into how, just humour me on this) we can all at least agree that it’s not going to vastly change the basic reality that NI is inhabited by both British and Irish citizens with their own cultural and aspirational identities. People who will need healthcare, education, support and the means by which to find a way in life.
People who, on a basic human level, want to live in peace and prosperity.
As a citizen of Northern Ireland, a tricolour or a union flag over Stormont is an arbitrary ribbon in my eyes as long as it does not improve the lives of the citizens that I live alongside, be they from the Braniel, the Bogside, Belfast or Ballymena.
For all its faults, I feel that the Good Friday Agreement was a huge step towards recognising this after a period of primitive and violent polarisation and segregation.
The constitutional “question” can be settled with a referendum thanks to the principle of consent and that should’ve side-lined that aspect to allow us to abandon the grandiose “cultural” warfare and focus on trying to get the country working for everyone.
This current recurring attitude of “all for us and none for them” we’re seeing around identity issues, social issues and civil rights is untenable and the evidence is in the past we inherited it from.
No matter how hard you try to crush one side or section of our communities, they will always still be here and just feel more hardened by whatever mistreatment you subject them to. Look at the utter redundancy of homophobia; acting like a bigot towards LGBT citizens and actively oppressing them for centuries has not magically made them vanish. They’re human beings who live here and have a right to have their basic human dignity respected.
Refusing to accept British or Irish citizens living in NI isn’t going to make them suddenly give up and disappear or completely change who they are.
I’m a big fan of returning things to fundamental principles to work outwards from and I feel the GFA embodied that very ideal. Forget the past for a moment. A big ask, I know, but when you put aside the burdens of our crimes against each other and leave us with just the human beings that live in this geographical region you get to the heart of where you should build your aspirations for this place.
After the events around the American Revolution, George Washington was rather fond of a particular section of scripture when discussing the future for this country in its infancy:
“they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid”
An idealistic but universal aspiration for all the people of a country with a grim past which had still yet to endure a vicious civil war of its own. An aspiration that wishes the best for all with no equivocation or condition.
The dream of a shared future is just that.
Our citizens, be they British or Irish or both or straight or gay or woman or man or non-binary or Christian or Muslim or whatever they so wish, beyond the complex fluidity of identities, are just trying to live their lives.
When our prejudices and our constant battle to claim our space in this place leads to public services coming to a standstill, to students emigrating, to young men and women stepping off bridges; we are failing ourselves and denying all of us a better life.
To secure any kind of future for either specific aspiration requires making room for those who will continue to live here. This means being willing to come to terms with the reality that Irish people will want recognition of their culture. That Unionists and Protestants will want their traditions protected. That the LGBT community will want to live here without being demonised.
Ask yourself, regardless of the orange vs green disputes, what kind of life do you want for the generations that will follow us on this small stretch of land? One where sections of our population, no matter how small, live in paranoia, fear or unhappiness because of a refusal to recognise their right to live here? Or one where the question of the border doesn’t dictate an intransigent refusal to come together or allow for progress because of a paranoid fear of trojan horses and surrendering to partition?
As we sit here in this era of anniversaries where the proponents of grand narratives and aspirations around the constitutional status of the North will go digging through the past to select the champion moments for their arguments, so that both the atrocities and moments of hope can be claimed as proof of their own vindication. None of this will provide answers for the future if there is no meaningful commitment to take ownership of the faults of the past and strive to never repeat them. To move beyond the platitude of “hate is bad” and vow to drive it from our politics. History is often quoted as belonging to “the victor” but more importantly the future will belong to us all. Any aspiration that does not accept that simple reality is doomed to repeat the mistakes of history.
Brendan is a Belfast-based legal analyst and photographer. He's part of the Fly By Those Nets editorial team and comments on politics on Twitter.